A cold autumn wind scuttled across the parking lot and edged beneath the collar of Tom Hanson's jacket. It brought with it the scrape of dry leaves against cracked macadam; the stench of rotting garbage piled high in the open dumpster to his left. Sound and scent proved fleeting distractions--observations that registered briefly, before being quickly dismissed. With his shoulders pressed to the brick wall of the abandoned warehouse, Tom inched further along the perimeter of the building. Gun cocked, held close to his cheek, he listened for any betraying flicker of sound. The familiar cadence of the city bounced back to him--the rumble of cars barreling down Third; the distance whoop-whoop of a fading siren; the repetitive bark of a dog.
Drawing a breath, he eased further into the protective shadows. Overhead, a sickle moon pierced the tattered cloud clover, coaxing a glimmer of bluing from the barrel of his revolver. Almost immediately he heard the sharp pop of a semi-automatic; felt the tell-tale displacement of air as a bullet whistled past his ear.
"Shit!" Tom dove to the side, rolling when his shoulder struck the ground. A second volley of bullets pinged over his head. Wrenching backwards, he slammed up against the dumpster, using the rusted bin for coverage. His finger jerked on the trigger of the .38, inducing a brief flash from the pistol. The report of the gun cracked through the air, echoing across the broken window panes of the empty warehouse, before plummeting into sudden silence.
"Come on, come on." Tom whispered. He was outnumbered four to one and knew it was only a matter of time before the others got the best of him. "The others" were four high school seniors who'd been selling guns in the halls of Calverton High--a lucrative business tied to drug money. Tom had been sent undercover to learn the identity of the dealer, and had successfully tracked the guns to a man known as Lupine. Unfortunately, before he'd been able to close on his mark, his cover had been blown and the perp had fled the scene, leaving his underlings to "dispose of the cop."
Tom glanced aside, hoping to see the bounce of red and blue patrol lights slanting through the shadows. Instead the darkness mocked him--broken only by the plume of his breath and the yellow puddle of waxy light emitted from a single street lamp at the end of the lot. Penhall and Fuller were overdue.
"Come on, Penhall. I need back-up, buddy."
Ping! A bullet struck the dumpster and ricocheted off the side. Tom cursed. His workboots crunched against the macadam as he inched to the rear, keeping his shoulders pressed to the rusted metal. Dropping his right wrist across his left forearm, he sighted along the short barrel of the .38 and sent a second shot into the darkness. There followed a groan and a muted thud.
"MacMillian--" A disembodied voice called from the darkness. "Reynolds is hit."
Tom scrambled back to the side, peering through the dense black shadows. Though he couldn't see anything, he felt fairly certain his bullet had struck home. The voice--he recognized the nasal treble as belonging to Vance Pagliano--confirmed his suspicions. There followed a brief shuffling, followed by a softly uttered string of vulgarities. Tom wet his lips and waited--every muscle in his lean frame strung taut.
"Give it up, cop," a new voice hailed from the shadows. "Ain't like you're goin' anywhere. Lupine wants you dead."
Roth MacMillian. Tom identified the second voice as easily as the first. The leader of the group, MacMillian had been the one to blow his cover, earning the high-schooler a measure of approval in Lupine's eyes. Tom shuffled back to the other side of the dumpster. His legs were starting to cramp and he was down to four bullets. Wincing slightly, he shifted position and let his eyes sweep across the deserted lot. He was effectively pinned between the dumpster and the warehouse. The only other source of cover--the broken shell of an automobile--was fifty yards away. The opposite end of the lot was illuminated by the streetlight, making it unapproachable if he hoped to maintain any measure of secrecy. MacMillian and his cohorts were fanned out opposite him, their positions hidden by an obstruction of empty waste barrels.
Without warning, a rattle of gunfire exploded from the barricade, battering the ground and dumpster with an infusion of bullets. Ducking his head behind the protective shelter of one arm, Tom tried to retreat towards the warehouse. Sensing that withdrawal, his opponents turned their weapons on the dusty windows of the building. Glass shattered and rainbowed to the ground, each piece a lethal projectile. Tom grunted at the impact, feeling the pelt of broken fragments against his shoulders and arms. Tiny particles snagged in his hair, snarled among the brown tresses. Raising his left hand, he scraped it back through his hair, wincing when he only succeeded in lacerating his fingers. He could feel the wet sticky flow of blood from his hand; the hot track of fluid from a cut on his temple. Staggering back against the building, he pumped three shots into the darkness.
Only then did he become aware of the sound in the distance--a shrill keening wail that gradually rose in volume, fluctuating now and again as it struck a peak, only to bounce back even louder. Crimson and blue sliced through the shadows, the intrusion of light as welcome as the siren that proceeded it. Sagging against the building, Tom watched three squad cars roll into the lot. Across the way, his attackers scattered, running in four different directions. Reynolds managed only a few steps before the bullet he'd taken drew him up short, and he collapsed gasping on the cold macadam. Tom was already sprinting after MacMillian when two of the uniforms moved to cuff the injured Reynolds. Behind him he could hear Penhall yelling for Pagliano to drop his weapon.
Tom's breath was rasp in his ears. He felt the sting of renewed circulation as blood flowed through his cramped legs. The muscles loosened like liquid, propelling him forward with determined speed. He could see MacMillian just ahead of him; feel the rush of cold autumn air in his face. Holstering his gun, he worked his arms and legs together until he closed the gap on his quarry. With a grunt of effort, Tom threw himself forward, catching MacMillian low on the legs and bearing them both to the ground. He heard MacMillian curse; felt the sharp crack of knuckles across his cheek. Tom rocked backwards, then threw his own blow to the younger man's midsection. When the other doubled up, Tom rolled him onto his stomach, straddling his legs. Wrenching his gun from his belt holster, he jammed the barrel into the back of Roth MacMillian's head. "Stay still," he commanded curtly. Almost immediately the body beneath him ceased its writhing.
"Hey, need a hand?" a familiar voice called. Tom twisted at the sound of approaching footsteps, then huffed out air when he saw Doug Penhall. The other was dressed in jeans, a plaid workshirt and a black ball cap. Stretching out his arm Doug offered his partner a pair of handcuffs.
"Thought you might need these."
Hanson's mouth tightened slightly, but he accepted the cuffs. "Took you long enough." There followed a muted click as he cuffed MacMillian's wrists and hauled him to his feet. Blonde-haired and chunky, the younger man was a stark contrast to Hanson's dark hair and trim physique. "Okay, Pal, you've probably heard this before, but--You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say, can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. . ." Hanson read MacMillian his Miranda Rights, then willingly released him when a uniformed officer arrived to take custody. As the other two moved away, Tom's eyes skewed sideways to his friend. He holstered his gun. "Where's Fuller?"
"Helping the uniforms round up the other three. Reynolds didn't get far and Pagliano crumbled easily enough. Last I saw, all were present and accounted for." Penhall's eyes narrowed as he noticed the dark stain on Hanson's left thigh. "What's wrong with your leg?"
"Huh? Oh--" Tom lifted his hand where it rested against his jeans. The blood from his lacerated fingers had soaked into the denim, darkening the fabric until it was almost black in the half-glow of moonlight and shadow. "Nothing. I-I cut my hand, that's all."
"Uh-huh. Tough case, Tommy?" Doug's lips twitched slightly, betraying the sarcasm. Hanson closed his eyes and glanced away. When his gaze returned a moment later, his black-lashed eyes were flat and cold.
"I lost Lupine. I had him. He was here and I lost him. I screwed up, Doug. Six weeks of undercover work and we walk away with a ratpack of acne-prone kids. I've got nothing."
"You've got MacMillian. He'll talk."
"He won't." Hanson dragged a hand over his face. Beneath the split pads of his fingertips, he could feel the rising bruise on his cheek where MacMillian had struck him. He was suddenly tired. Long hours and sleepless nights of pouring over leads was slowly taking its toll. The raw edge of his nerves corded into a volatile web of frustration, waiting to ignite with anger. His hand fell away from his chin, leaving streaks of blood slanted like black ink across his flesh. "God Doug, I'm an idiot. I never even got close enough to I.D. him."
"So we'll work on MacMillian."
Tom shook his head and muttered something unintelligible. Irritated, Doug frowned.
"Hanson, do you think you're the only cop that ever blew a gig? Grow up. We go back to the drawing board, and work what we've got."
Tom's anger exploded. "What we've got is shit! Haven't you been listening? The man was here--here in this friggin' parking lot and I let him slip through my fingers." Hanson turned in an agitated circle, aggravation propelling him into motion. Drawing back his leg, he rammed the tip of his workboot into the ground. "These kids will make bail in a few hours, and Lupine will rabbit into the nearest hole, if he hasn't already. If he's smart he'll keep a low profile and won't surface for months."
"Tom, you had to get something on him."
"Nothing. I'm telling you, I couldn't even give you an I.D. MacMillian showed up and blew my cover right when Lupine arrived. All I got was a make on the car--black or dark blue. Might have been a Mercedes. It was too dark to tell. I saw a kind of . . . I don't know . . . a hood ornament, or something. Might have been a wolf."
Penhall nodded. "Lupine. Wolf. Makes sense. So we put out an All-Points on the car."
"Yeah." Tom lowered his head, clearly disgusted.
"Hanson!" The name cut through the night air with the weight of command. Tom jerked around just as Adam Fuller approached from behind. The grim set of the police captain's face left little doubt to his frame of mind. "Well?" Stopping beside his officers, Fuller lodged his hands on his hips and turned a steely glare on the shorter of the two. "Out with it Hanson. We've got four kids--one with your bullet in him--and no dealer. Where's Lupine?"
Tom's eyes skewed sideways, nervously catching Doug's sympathetic stare before returning to Fuller. "Um . . . it didn't go down like I planned."
"MacMillian blew my cover, Coach. I don't know how--he must have had a make on me. Lupine bolted before I even got near him."
Fuller assessed the words silently. The edge was gone from his voice when he spoke, but a crispness remained to his onyx-black eyes. "Think one of them will talk?"
Hanson shrugged. In the pale glow of cloud-filtered light, his face appeared haggard and gaunt. Fuller noted the blood on his hand and jeans. "Pagliano's the weak link, Coach, but I think Lupine's got him spooked. Anything's worth a shot. Right now, it's all we've got."
"Agreed." Fuller's gaze narrowed as he considered Hanson's ragged appearance. "Get yourself cleaned up, then meet me in interrogation."
Tom nodded, the motion barely perceptible. Scowling, Fuller glanced aside at Doug. "Penhall, see he gets that hand taken care of."
"Sure." Doug's reply was quiet, but it was enough to satisfy Fuller, who moved back towards the squad cars. Alone with his friend, Doug tried to lighten the mood. " 'kay, Tom, you heard the boss--first we make you pretty again, then you get to play tough downtown." Reaching forward he grabbed a handful of Tom's jacket and pulled. Hanson moved to protest. "And don't give me any grief," Penhall warned. "It's late and I'm tired. You're not the only one who's been putting in long hours, you know."
"Yeah," Hanson said softly. The point was taken--they all needed a break. Falling in step behind Doug, Tom trailed silently on his friend's heels. He pinched two fingers against the bridge of his nose, but it did nothing to silence his burgeoning headache.
*** *** ***
"You don't get it, do you?" Tom Hanson backed Vance Pagliano up against the wall. The interrogation room was small, making each square foot of space coveted ground. Sensing Pagliano's claustrophobic nervousness, Tom pressed the advantage. Leaning forward, he let his face come within inches of Pagliano's pinched countenance. Though not exceptionally tall, Hanson held the height advantage by a good three inches. "You're in deep trouble, my friend: Fencing stolen weapons; soliciting the sale of firearms to minors; resisting arrest; assaulting an officer; attempted murder--"
"Whoa! Whoa!" Pagliano's watery blue eyes boggled in his head. "It wasn't me! MacMillian and Reynolds were the ones firing on you."
"You had a gun. It was discharged."
"I shot at the windows. That was all."
"Doesn't matter." Tom eased back slightly. He was still fighting off a headache, and the discomfort brought a measure of flint-like coldness to his normally warm brown eyes. "You were there. You'll be charged with the others."
"That's bullshit!" Pagliano took a step forward, bristling like a peacock with ruffled feathers.
Tom shrugged disinterestedly. Across the small room, behind the opaque glass of a two-way mirror, he knew Fuller and Penhall watched the exchange. "You wanna talk to me, Raymond? You wanna tell me about Lupine?"
"Huh?" The indignation of moments before fled Pagliano's face as though doused by frigid water. The high schooler grew suddenly wary. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he feigned confusion. "Don't know who you're talking about." When Tom only glanced at him as though mocking the observation, Pagliano grew angry. "This is bullshit, man! I don't gotta say nuthin' without my lawyer."
Tom's mouth pressed in a tight, white line. "Thought you might say that." Reaching forward he grabbed Pagliano by the collar and dragged him roughly towards the door. Wrenching it open, he thrust the juvenile into the hands of a waiting patrolman. "Take him to holding," he instructed. As Pagliano was escorted down the hall, Tom turned back into the room. Dragging a chair from the rectangular table, he spun it around and straddled it backwards, folding his arms over the top. It was in that position that Fuller and Penhall found him.
"Went pretty much as expected," Fuller commented, striding into the room.
Tom sighed and dropped his chin to his wrist. An errant lock of chestnut-brown hair fell forward over his brow, obscuring his eyes. "Sorry, Coach," he mumbled.
Fuller shot a look at Penhall, then let his eyes drift back to Hanson. The younger man was obviously feeling the weight of fatigue. Belatedly Fuller realized he should have let Penhall do the interrogation. Though he hadn't really expected to learn anything from the juveniles they'd detained, Hanson's state of mind was a step below functional, making him a prime candidate for observation, rather than interaction.
"You did what you could." Fuller's eyes dropped to the bandage on Hanson's left hand, then to the dark stain on his faded jeans. A frown tugged at the corner of his mouth. Hanson's idea of cleaning up and having his hand looked after, consisted of wrapping a piece of cloth around his palm. Tied loosely, the makeshift bandage was stiff and discolored with dried blood. Fuller felt a flicker of irritation. "Hanson, I want you to go to a med unit and get that hand taken care of, then I want you to go home and go to bed."
Tom's head came up with a jerk. "But--"
"Report to me tomorrow morning and we'll take it from there."
Tom sighed. The finality of Fuller's instructions made it clear the discussion was terminated. With a grimace of pain, Tom pushed from the chair.
"Need a ride?" Doug asked.
Tom shook his head. With a backwards flip of his hand, he left the room. He'd taken only two steps when he collided with a uniformed patrolman. "Oof! Sorry, didn't see you . . ." Tom's grin was slightly embarrassed as his eyes dropped to the other's name tag. He didn't recognize the man. " . . . Officer Wilson."
Tall and blunt-featured, with short-cropped black hair, Wilson was a good ten years older than Hanson. "S'alright." Anxious to get away, he barreled past, eyes lowered. Bewildered, Tom shook his head. He strode for the exit. Fuller was right--he did need some sleep. Maybe in the morning, when prospects did not seem so bleak, he could make sense of the mistakes he'd made tonight.
*** *** ***
"You wanted to see me, Captain?"
Adam Fuller glanced up as Tom Hanson entered his office. He shuffled through the stack of papers littering his desk and glanced at the wall clock. The hour had inched past 8:00 a.m., signaling the start of another day. With a nod for the chair across from his desk, he motioned Tom to sit.
"Hey, what's this?" Tom confiscated a sheet of paper from Fuller's desk as he slid into the chair. "Wire service, huh? What's this about?"
Fuller reached for his coffee. "From the Pineville police department. Couple of guys robbed a travel lodge and shot the night clerk. Wire says they might be headed this way." Lifting the coffee mug to his lips, Fuller swallowed a mouthful of the lukewarm brew. The action gave him a moment to study his officer.
Perhaps the hardest to read of those under his command, Hanson was also the most impassioned. Though he frequently kept matters to himself, his highly defined sense of right and wrong allowed little room for gray areas. Things tended to be black or white with Hanson, and he defined friendship and job responsibilities in much the same terms. Too much the perfectionist to admit when matters were beyond his control, Fuller knew he was still blaming himself for failing to apprehend Lupine. "Get some rest?" the captain asked conversationally.
Tom slid the paper back onto Fuller's desk where it quickly became lost among budget reports and case files. Lacing his hands across his stomach, he hooked his left ankle over his right knee and nodded. "What'd you want to see me about?"
Fuller frowned. There were times when he wished Hanson wasn't so quick to the point. Clearing his throat, he returned the coffee mug to his desk. "I wanted to talk to you about Penhall and Booker. About the trip they're taking."
Tom's lips parted as one brow inched into the fringe of his bangs. "You mean to the Whitegate PD? To explain the Jump Street program?"
Fuller nodded. He could tell from Tom's expression, the younger man was caught off guard. Clearly, this was not the subject he'd been prepared to discuss. "Yeah. Whitegate's thinking about starting a similar program, and Penhall and Booker have offered to explain how we operate. . . kind of give them a hands-on approach."
"Coach, I know all this." Hanson seemed perturbed. "What's it got to do with me?"
"I want you to go with them." Fuller said the words flatly.
Tom snorted. "That's crazy!" Unwinding from his seat, he stood and leaned forward, bracing both hands flat on Fuller's desk. Though Fuller's eyes never lowered, he could see the fresh bandage on Tom's left hand, the tape and gauze, as crisp as new fallen snow. "Why would you send me to Whitegate when Lupine's--"
"Forget Lupine, Tom. You need to disappear for a few days while I clear this up."
"Clear what up?"
Fuller pushed from his seat, forcing Tom to draw back. The police captain squared his shoulders, drawing himself to his full height. He glanced down at the younger man, absently noting the discolored bruise splayed over the chiseled bone of his left cheek. Tom's eyes were dark and diamond hard, his full lips drawn into a belligerent line.
"Think about it, Tom. Your cover's blown right when we're ready to move on Lupine. You spent six weeks worming into that group, with no suspicion on the part of any of those kids. Kind of ironic MacMillian ID's you right before the bust."
Tom's eyes narrowed. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying there could be more to this than we think. Someone fed MacMillian--maybe even Lupine--the information."
Tom glanced away as he considered the possibility. Fuller watched the tension drain from his lean frame as he strode into the room. Tugging his lower lip between his teeth, Hanson propped a shoulder against the wall. "A snitch?" he ventured.
Fuller spread his hands wide as Tom's eyes swivelled back to him. "It's as good a place as any to start. Until I'm satisfied that's not the case, I want you out of here. Besides--" Fuller's lips curled in a half grin. "You could use some time off."
"With Penhall?" Tom sighed. "And Booker?"
Fuller's grin grew. It was a well known fact that while Booker and Hanson worked together, that relationship was more often antagonistic than friendly. The prospect of the two of them together on a trip was suddenly comical.
Fuller's dark eyes twinkled. "The way I hear it, Hanson, you're going to be doing a little fishing."
*** *** ***
"Fishing!" Tom Hanson spat the word, clearly disgusted. "You drag me out of bed at 5:00 a.m. just so the two of you can get an extra day fishing. Fuller didn't say anything about spending the night at some . . .some . . .cabin in the woods. This place better be heated."
"Relax, Tommy." Dennis Booker glanced in the rear view mirror, noting the disgruntled passenger in the back seat. Arms folded across his chest, chin tucked beneath the collar of his brown leather jacket, Tom Hanson appeared sullen. The fact that he was sitting with his back to the side window, legs stretched out on the seat, made his slouched posture seem that of a sulky child. A navy blue ball cap kept his unruly bangs tamed beneath its bill. "There's no phone or radio, but I promise the cabin's heated," Booker assured. His hands moved smoothly on the steering wheel, guiding the car through an "s" turn on the steeply climbing road. A sly smile lifted the corners of his lips, and his eyes slid aside to Doug Penhall in the passenger seat. "--as long as someone's chopped logs for the woodstove, that is."
"Great." Unaware that Penhall and Booker exchanged an amused glance at his expense, Hanson huddled deeper into his jacket. Outside the car, a crisp wind buffeted the Monte Carlo, then funneled into the thicket of trees lining the road. It was shortly after ten in the morning, the trek already five hours old. "I'm freezing back here," Tom complained. "Think we could get some heat?"
"Geez, Hanson, if I'd known you were gonna be such a baby, I would have paid Fuller to keep you." With a wink at Booker, Penhall adjusted the temperature control. This time Tom caught the exchange.
"Glad you two are enjoying this so much." Sliding to the middle, Hanson sat forward. He draped his arms over the backrest of the bucket seat in front, dropping his chin to the gray vinyl. "Figures the department would give us a car with a defective heater. It's November and we're playing Daniel Boone in the middle of God-knows-where."
"Claymore Lake region," Booker corrected, conversationally. "A friend of mine turned me onto it a last year. Great place. Off the beaten trail . . . no traffic . . . nothing around for miles. Just a few small cabins and one beautiful lake for fishing."
This time it was Penhall and Hanson who exchanged a glance. There was no questioning they were off the beaten trail. The road had narrowed hours ago, shriveling to a thin passage that snaked through a corridor of autumn-dressed trees. Hued with leaves of copper, red and gold, dense thickets of oak and spruce vied for room on either side of the winding passage. Overhead the sky was steel gray, threatening rain. The nearest town and any sign of civilization lay forty miles behind them.
Penhall glanced at Booker. "I didn't think you were the type. Fishing, I mean. This friend of yours wouldn't be female, by any chance?"
Dennis's grin was knowingly thin. "Get your mind out of the gutter, Penhall. I met Paul through a mutual friend."
"Didn't think you had many of those." Though Tom cast the words as easy banter, it scored nevertheless.
Booker chose to ignore the dig. Tightening his hands on the steering wheel, he continued. "When Paul heard I had to go to Whitegate, he suggested I leave a few days early and do some fishing at his cabin. Captain Penn isn't expecting us until Monday. That gives us two whole days to kick back and do nothing. Whitegate's about two hours from here. If we leave Sunday evening, we've got plenty of time."
Penhall squinted up at the sky. "I don't know, Dennis. It's looking pretty bleak."
"What? You never fished in the rain before?"
"Hey, what's that?" Stretching his arm across the front seat, Hanson pointed through the windshield. The others followed his direction. "Thought you said nobody travels this road?"
"Hardly ever." Booker eased off the gas as he approached the disabled sedan on the shoulder. "It's a private road used for passage to the lake area. It's off-season. The odds of someone being up here are pretty slim. Guess it's lucky we happened by." His hand strayed to the police-ban radio. "Should I call it in?"
"Let's check it out first," Penhall suggested. Booker killed the engine and the three officers exited the car.
The sedan looked undamaged, but it was slanted off the road at an awkward angle, the right side tires wedged below the berm as if the driver had veered unexpectedly. As they approached the vehicle, they could just distinguish the silhouette of a body slumped over the steering wheel.
"Hey, someone's hurt." Dennis sprinted to the driver side door, drawing it open and bending down. The man inside was slumped face forward, his head turned to the side. All Dennis could distinguish was a lanky twist of brick-colored hair, secured in a loose pony tail. "Hey, buddy, you okay?" Gently, Dennis slid his hand onto a jersey-clad shoulder. At his touch, the man sprang suddenly to life, jerking back in the seat and drawing his right arm forward. A glint of metal appeared in his hand, and Dennis's eyes fell to the gun leveled at his stomach. He cursed softly.
"Back up," he was told.
"Hey, Booker, what's going on?" Tom Hanson rounded the car, just as two men emerged from the woods, one on either side of the vehicle. Tom saw the guns in their hands about the same time he registered the .357 trained on Booker. With a disgusted curse for being duped so easily, he slowly raised his hands in the air. Standing at the rear of the sedan, Penhall did likewise.
"No heroics, we just want the car." The man with the brick-colored hair prodded Booker. "Where's the keys, kid?"
Dennis's gaze was direct. "What's wrong with yours?"
A hand cracked across his face, jerking his head to the side. "Don't give me grief, boy. I just want the keys." Dennis's eyes returned, flat and defiant. He spat blood from his mouth but remained silent.
"In the car," Hanson spoke quickly. Though he'd only taken a brief glance at the wire from Pineville PD, he was fairly certain their attackers matched the description of the three men wanted for robbery and murder. He just didn't see any way of relaying that to his partners. Though technically off duty, his .38 was still holstered below his shoulder, the bulk of the weapon pressing on his side even now. From experience, he knew Penhall and Booker were also armed.
The man with the pony tail motioned to one of his cohorts. A blonde-haired man with a grizzled beard moved forward and lifted the hood of the sedan. Hanson wet his lips, watching as the man pulled the spark plug wires and removed them. "Radiator's busted," the man explained with a malignant grin, "but we wouldn't want to take any chances, eh?"
"Shut up and get in the car, Clyde," the pony-tailed leader commanded.
"Sure, Brice." As the blonde-haired man moved towards the Chevy, a third, shorter man backed away from Penhall. Finally the leader retreated, his gun still trained on the three cops.
The blonde-haired man opened the driver's door and stood staring down at the interior of the car. A strange expression crossed his face, running the gamut from incomprehension, to sudden realization. Irritated by his hesitation, Brice lost all patience. His face mottled with rage. "This ain't a showroom, Clyde. Get the hell in the car." He cast a glance over his shoulder and in that instant, Hanson moved for his gun.
"They're cops," Clyde exclaimed, noting both radio and cherry below the dash.
Hanson's gun was almost out of its holster when Brice started firing. Tom dove to the side, rolling as his shoulder struck the ground. There was a sharp explosion of pain just below the bone, and then sound seemed to funnel to him from a great distance. He heard the sharp report of Booker's automatic, followed by the pop of Penhall's service revolver. Lifting his own arm, he tried to take aim, but a sudden wave of nausea doubled him over in a cold sweat. The fire in his shoulder grew hotter, kindled by the release of something hot and wet against his skin. The world reeled helter-skelter, tumbling him to the ground. Rolling onto his stomach, he panted for breath.
"Hanson, you okay?" Somehow Penhall's voice penetrated the fog in his mind. He heard the sharp bang of car doors; the rumble of the Chevy's engine; the shrill squeal of tires against macadam. Suddenly there was only silence and the racing beat of his own heart. "Hanson!" Doug was clearly alarmed. A hand rattled his shoulder and he groaned. "Tom, come on man, what's wrong?" Persistent, the hand rolled him onto his back and he gasped aloud.
"Shit, Booker, he's been hit."
Tom barely registered the words before darkness came and pulled him into a velvety cocoon.
*** *** ***
" . . . ain't gonna work." Penhall's angry voice brought Tom back to consciousness. "The car's shot, Booker. Just forget it. We gotta get Tom to the cabin."
"That's what I'm trying to tell you Penhall--we either hike up this road and circle back the other side, or we cross through the woods. Either way, Hanson's not gonna make it."
Tom blinked, trying to orient on the voices. His vision see-sawed, then settled into dim stability. He was leaning against the sedan, his back propped against the right rear tire. At the front of the vehicle, Penhall and Booker were engaged in a heated debate.
"Doug--" Speaking made Tom cough. He closed his eyes briefly, wincing as sudden pain splintered from his shoulder to his fingertips, leaving him light-headed and disoriented. There followed a crunch of gravel and his eyes fluttered open to find Penhall squatting at his side. He could just distinguish Booker behind his friend, the other's leather jacket offset by a backdrop of gem-bright leaves. "Wh-what happened?" Tom asked.
Penhall's eyes were worried. "Those three guys--"
"Th-they robbed a hotel in Pineville," Tom interrupted with difficulty. He could feel the breeze filtering through his hair. He'd lost his cap in the scuffle. "Shot the night clerk . . . s-saw a wire Fuller had..."
"No wonder they freaked." Penhall exchanged a glance with Booker, then his eyes returned to Hanson. Biting his lip, he slid his hand onto his friend's uninjured left shoulder. "You took a hit, Tom. Looks like the bullet went clean through, but I know it's gotta hurt like hell."
Hanson managed a wan smile. "Understatement." He coughed weakly, then grimaced as new needles of pain went shooting down his arm. A cold wind blew past, rattling the branches of a slender elm, chasing cinnamon-red leaves to the ground. Hanson began to shiver.
"Easy, Tommy." Leaning forward, Penhall unzipped Tom's jacket, pulling the soft leather aside to examine the wound. At his touch Tom hitched in his breath and tensed. "Easy," Penhall repeated. With gentle fingers, he assessed the wound as best he could. Though the examination was peformed with care, his touch left Hanson white-faced and trembling.
Doug pressed his lips together and sat back on his haunches. His expression was grim. "Bleeding's stopped. Tom, we can get you in the car if you want, out of this wind."
Tom shook his head, too tired to speak. Doug's simple prodding had exhausted him. Already his eyes were drifting shut, the long lashes spiking black thread against his skin.
Shrugging out of his coat, Doug draped the garment over him, then touched his cheek. "Hang in there, buddy. We're gonna get you out of this." Reaching behind him, he motioned Booker to retreat.
"We gotta do something," Doug told the other, when they had moved once again to the front of the vehicle. "We're lucky the bullet went through, but we don't know what kind of damage it did. Without proper care he stands the chance of infection and fever."
"I know." Booker scrubbed a hand through his hair, his expression grim. His eyes flicked to the sky, noting the increasing cloud mass. Only a thin sliver of light peaked through. "It's gonna rain soon. Tommy's going to need some cover."
"We can't stay here." Penhall shook his head and swore softly. "We're sitting ducks in that car. Those three might decide to come back and finish the job. They know Tom's hurt."
"Yeah, and the nearest town is forty miles behind us. No radio, no phone, and we won't be overdue in Whitegate for two more days."
"What are the odds of catching a ride on this road?" Penhall looked hopeful. "I could hike back the way we came, or up ahead."
"Ahead just winds into the mountain and down the other side by the lake. There's nothing behind us but trees and rock. I told you--this is the off season. The chances of another car coming through here are slim and none."
"I'm not just gonna leave him there!" Penhall shouted, stabbing a figure in Hanson's direction. "Come on, Booker, think! We're trained professionals."
"All right, look--" Booker lifted one hand to halt what he perceived as a coming tirade. "There's a house in the woods further up the mountain. The guy lives here year-round. I met him the last time I was up with Paul. He's bound to have a phone."
"Great!" Doug cried. "Why didn't you say so before?"
Dennis wet his lips. "He's back off a private trail. I couldn't reach him till nightfall if I went by way of the road. I think if I cut through the woods up that embankment--" A nod of his head indicated an incline of treed ground on the opposite side, "--I might be able to make it by mid afternoon."
Penhall followed his gaze. His expression was doubtful. "Think you can find this place?"
Dennis's eyes tracked back to Hanson. Even from this distance he could see the gray cast of the other's skin; the shallow rise and fall of his chest. "Don't really have a choice, do I?" Digging into his pocket he retrieved a key. "Here--this'll get you into Paul's cabin."
Doug's expression was blank. "What the hell am I gonna do with this? I thought you said the cabin was all the way down the other side."
"It is." Dennis stepped away from the car and walked to the edge of the treeline. On this side of the road, the ground sloped down, muddy earth and tumbled rocks disappearing beneath a canopy of intertwining trees. The incline was gradual, blanketed by dried leaves and scattered fern. Weak sunlight puddled the ground. "It's not steep here. Hanson might be able to walk it."
"What?" Doug was incredulous. In a matter of seconds he was at Booker's shoulder. "Are you crazy?"
"Listen to me. If you cut through the woods, it's only a few miles to the road. It's just gravel on that side, not macadam, like here."
Penhall was growing annoyed. "What's that got to do with anything? Tom's hurt--"
"No shit!" Booker exploded. "And he needs to be inside where it's warm and dry. Where you can do something with that wound before it gets infected. Listen Penhall, if you cut through here, it's only a few miles to the road. The lake's on the other side and Paul's cabin is there. You could have him there in a few hours."
Doug shook his head. "Me? Find my way through the woods?"
"Keep the sun on your right and head north. When you hit the road, I'm not sure how far it is to the cabin. Don't know at what point you'll be intersecting, so I can't tell you if you go left or right."
"Damn it, Booker, I don't know. He's pretty messed up."
"Tommy's tough. Besides, the alternative is sitting here and waiting for help. Even if I reach the house, it's gonna be dark before someone can get to you. You just got through saying, those three might decide to come back and finish things. Hanson isn't gonna be any good in a gun fight."
"Yeah." There was resignation in Doug's tone now. The thought of wandering around in the woods terrified him. With Tom's life in the balance, he didn't want to screw up and lose them among the maze of trees. His eyes swept aside to Booker. "Keep the sun at my right, huh? Have you noticed it's mostly clouds?"
Booker exhaled, his own frustration slipping through. "Look, you don't have to be Davy Crockett. If a guy from New York can handle this, you can too. Just mark it's position, and keep to a straight line. Sooner or later, you're gonna hit the road. From there it's just a matter of finding the cabin."
" 'kay." The word slipped through on a breath of air. Penhall scrubbed a hand over his chin. Stuffing the key into his pocket, he made his decision. Leaves crunched beneath his sneakers as he walked to Tom Hanson's side. The other stirred at the intrusion of sound, his eyes flickering open.
"Doug . . . Doug, what's wrong?"
"Nothing, buddy." Penhall squatted at his side. "How're you feeling?"
Hanson's smile was thin. "How'd you think I'm feeling?"
"Yeah." Doug's eyes dipped to the ground. "Listen, Tom . . . we can't stay here. Those three guys might come back. Aside from which, we need to get you someplace where it's warm . . .take a look at that shoulder before it gets infected."
Despite the obvious pain he was in, Hanson's gaze remained steady. "I'm listening."
"Think you can do some hiking?"
The thought alone induced a tight knot of nausea in Tom's stomach. He swallowed uneasily. "Sure."
Penhall looked up at Booker. They were pressing, and they both knew it. "Okay, let's get you up."
Tom tensed as the two moved to assist him. Booker slipped a hand beneath his good arm, while Penhall hooked him around the waist. The movement jarred his shoulder, and he cried aloud as a staggering wave of pain knifed through him. His legs started to buckle, prompting Penhall to catch him.
"This is never gonna work," Doug hissed, through gritted teeth, supporting his friend around his slim waist.
Hanson pushed away from him and staggered back against the car, bracing himself with his good arm. "Just give me a minute." Head bowed, long bangs spilling forward on his brow, he inhaled ragged gulps of the cold air. Penhall's coat had slipped from his shoulders and lay rumpled at his feet. Tom held his right arm close to his body, bent at the elbow and folded over his stomach. The blood from his shoulder had trailed down his arm, seeping beneath his sleeve to streak ribbons of red across the back of his hand. A garnet-dark stain splayed outward from the wound, discoloring the acorn-brown leather of his jacket like spilled wine.
Penhall retrieved his coat and moved to drape it over his friend's shoulders. Tom waved him aside. "I'm okay. I don't need it." He tilted his head back, lifting his face to the sky and the others saw the waxy sheen of his complexion. Sweat streaked his face, trickling over the day-old bruise on his cheek, the fading wedge prominent against the ghastly pallor of his skin. He swallowed quickly, biting back bile, waiting for the sudden onslaught of dizziness to past.
"I'm all right now." Pain-laced eyes shifted to Doug. A weak smile turned his lips. "Just don't go trying to set any speed records, okay?"
Penhall exhaled, not realizing he'd been holding his breath. Shrugging into his coat, he nodded at Booker. "Dennis is gonna go for help, while you and I try to find his friend's cabin."
"Who's gonna find us?"
"Don't be so glib," Penhall retorted, but he grinned, glad that his friend could still banter. "I got directions."
"Hope you didn't have to pay for them." Hanson pushed away from the car. Immediately, Penhall was at his side, slipping a hand beneath Tom's good arm before he could crumble. "Let's get this over with," Hanson muttered. Then to Doug: "What the hell did that guy shoot me with? Feels like a cannon."
"Be glad it wasn't."
Booker aided them over the edge of the road, helping Tom down into the brace of trees. It was cooler beneath the sheltering canopy, and almost immediately Tom began to shiver. "I'll be fine once we're moving," he told Penhall, noting the other's look of concern.
Booker caught his hand, then glanced at Penhall. "Take care of him. I'll be back as soon as I can."
"Just find us that help."
"Got it." With a flip of his hand, Booker sprinted up the incline. The other two watched as he darted across the road, swiftly disappearing among the trees on the opposite side. Their own progress was not nearly as quick. Doug aided Tom, sometimes merely supporting him, other times holding him upright when his knees threatened to buckle. They had hiked almost half an hour when it became apparent that Tom couldn't go any further.
"Let's rest here." Doug eased his friend to the ground, bracing Hanson's back against the trunk of a gnarled oak. Tom folded without protest, chin sagging immediately to his chest. Sweat stippled his upper lip and pooled in the hollow of his throat. His breath was harsh and ragged--a painful rattle that made him wince with each precious intake of air. Though his hair was sweat-plastered to the back of his neck, he shivered in the grasp of a cool breeze.
Hooking a finger beneath Tom's chin, Penhall forced his head up. "Hang in there, buddy. Dennis said it's only a few miles to the road."
Tom swallowed. The pain in his shoulder was dull. Within seconds it pulsed to life, spiking down his arm, shredding the flesh from the inside. Moaning, he twisted his head to the side. He could feel the scrape of bark against his flushed cheek; the bite of small pebbles against his palm, where it rested on the ground; the firm pressure of Doug's finger beneath his chin. The fire in his shoulder splintered across his chest and back, cascading through his lean frame with merciless abandon. "Ohgod!" Tom's fingers knotted in Doug's jacket as the agony threatened to send him over the edge. The tree-filtered light funneled from his eyes, cloaked by a veil of blackness. He felt himself slipping into a deep pit, pummeled by wave upon wave of vertigo. There was a hand on his shoulder, fingers tightening like a vice, then Doug's voice calling him back: " . . . Hanson! Hanson, come on. Stay with me, Tom."
The blackness retreated--slowly, then with jarring abruptness. Tom blinked. Returning consciousness brought an unexpected barrage of white-knuckled nausea. Gasping, Tom leaned forward, folding an arm across his middle. " . . . gonna be sick." It was all he had time to say before violent tremors racked his body, constricting his middle and forcing the contents of his stomach upward through his throat. Turning his body to the side, he crawled onto his hands and knees, blinking back tears as he retched uncontrollably. He felt Penhall's arm slide around his waist, supporting him. Perspiration dripped from his sweat-soaked bangs, splattering the leaf-carpeted ground with dollops of moisture. Shudders racked his body, until exhausted and empty, he collapsed against Doug.
"Easy." Doug held him close, frightened by his uncontrollable trembling. He could hear the quickened hitch of Tom's breath, bordering on hyper-ventilation. "Take slow breaths, Tom." Smoothing a hand over his friend's brow, he raked aside the long fringe of damp bangs. "God, why didn't you tell me you were pushing so hard? We would have stopped before--"
Unable to speak, Tom gripped Doug's arm. His head was cradled in the pocket of his friend's shoulder, his back supported by Penhall's broad chest. Through the broken shelter of branches and leaves, the first drops of rain began to fall. Tom closed his eyes. "I-I can't do this," he whispered.
"What are you talking about?"
Tom tried to pull away, but he was too weak. The retching had expended every last waning shred of energy he possessed. The fire in his shoulder shifted to his back, burrowing with a tenacity that made him grimace. Limply, his hand fell from Doug's arm. "I-I'll wait here. You . . . get help."
"That's not the way it works." Penhall tried to keep the alarm from his voice. He had never heard his partner sound so weak--so devoid of the drive to continue. The rain came harder now, pelting the ground around them with cold, driving sheets. Penhall ducked his head, trying to shelter Hanson. "Booker went for help. You and I have to get to the cabin." Shrugging out of his coat, he bundled it around his trembling companion. Hanson tried to push it aside.
"I don't need it--"
"You do." Struggling to his knees, Penhall eased Tom back against the tree. "This rain isn't helping any." He cast a quick glance at the sky as he adjusted the garment on his friend's shoulders. Tom suffered the fussing in silence, eyelids drifting shut once again. "I gotta get you out of this rain," Penhall whispered.
" . . . tired . . ."
"I know." Drawing back, Doug wiped clinging water from his brow. "You rest a few minutes, then we'll start again." Folding his arms across his chest to trap escaping heat, Penhall stood. His eyes darted among the trees, noting the terrain looked much the same in all directions. A worried glance at the sky revealed he had lost the sun completely. Ripples of anxiety plucked at his nerves as he recalled tales of people becoming lost in the woods. Not for the first time, he hoped he'd be able to find the road.
Tom moaned softly, lost in half-sleep. Glancing at his fried, Doug wondered how things could have gone so utterly wrong. For all their sakes, he prayed Booker fared well.
Dennis Booker cursed. The rain made it impossible to smoke, so he flicked the water-logged cigarette from his fingers, tramping on it, when it struck the ground. Twisting his toe against the earth, he outened the smoldering butt beneath his boot.
"At least they're good for something," he muttered, hiking the collar of his leather jacket up around his throat. The heavy black workbooks were hardly ideal for hiking over rain-slick rock. Twice he'd fallen, attempting to cross the beds of shale nestled among the trees. His breath plumed in the air as he quickened his pace, aware that with every passing moment Tom Hanson slipped further and further into danger.
Though he'd partnered with the mostly by-the-book cop on a few occasions, they'd never grown close. As opposite in personality as they were in appearance, Dennis realized he and Hanson were like oil and water. Still, he held a grudging admiration for the other. In his book, Hanson was an anomaly--an ethical cop who defended the system, while harboring doubts of its impartially. In deference to the other, Booker realized Hanson had developed a certain well-masked jadedness through his years on the force. Booker himself made no such pretense. He came to Jump Street, cynicism already firmly in place.
The ground swept upward, increasing it's degree of incline, and Booker stopped to catch his breath. The climb had left him sweating, despite the lingering chill of the rain. Sweeping a hand through his ink-black hair, he cast a quick glance at his watch. He'd been hiking for nearly an hour, but the stiffness in his muscles made it seem more like two. Though in good physical condition, it had been sometime since he'd managed a long arduous climb. The thinner air, coupled with the cigarette he'd just smoked, did nothing to improve his lung capacity.
"Okay, Booker, get it together." The command was more motivation than reprimand. Drawing a deep breath of cold air, he dug his boots into the muddy ground and doubled his pace.
*** *** ***
It seemed only a few minutes had passed before Doug roused Tom from a pain-fogged half sleep, dragging him to his feet. Though each step brought a new sensation of agony to his injured shoulder, Tom stumbled along mutely in his friend's grip. His surroundings became a blur, viewed through the kaleidoscopic lense of a fish-eyed bubble--trees and sky set into surreal motion by the touch of wind and rain. The latter had slowed to a steady drizzle--a continuous chilling patter that left Tom shivering beneath the double layers of coat and jacket.
"Hang in there, buddy, you're doing fine." Doug's breath was a warm trickle against his cheek. Were it not for the support of his friend, Tom was certain his legs would have given out long ago. He closed his eyes briefly, leaning against Doug, hoping to glean some of Penhall's remarkable strength.
"H-how do you . . . do it?" he panted.
"Do what?" Penhall's voice reflected his puzzlement.
Tom made one foot move in front of the other. The hiking boots he'd worn were heavy and warm, making him thank his practical nature for having the foresight to wear them. "Y-you make me go on, when . . . I-I want to give up."
Penhall snorted. "That's easy. I'm bigger than you are. Smarter too."
Tom's head lolled to the side and he chuckled. " . . . give you the first, but not . . . smarter. C-can we stop soon?"
Penhall slowed. "You tired, Tommy?"
" . . . hurts . . . hard to breathe . . ."
"All right." Penhall stopped and eased him to the ground. Though he was shivering, there was a flush of fever on Hanson's face. Worried, Penhall cupped his cheek, letting his thumb linger against the waxen skin. "Still cold?" he asked.
Tom ducked his head, unwilling to admit the obvious. "How far's . . . the road?"
Doug wet his lips. His hand fell away. He'd been foolish to think Hanson could make the trek in his present condition. Rather than answer the question, he bent to examine his friend's shoulder. Tom flinched and cried out, but not before Doug had felt the incredible heat radiating from the wound. There was fresh blood beneath Tom's jacket, plastering his shirt to his skin. Penhall's eyes fell to Hanson's blood-soaked hand, in time to see his fingers twitch. Ducking his head, he rubbed the bridge of his nose in frustration. For a moment there was only silence, underscored by the labored rattle of Tom's breath. Hanson's fingers tightened on Doug's sleeve, wrapping around his wrist. "Help me up," he whispered.
"You're bleeding again," Penhall replied matter-of-factly. He didn't want to think about infection, but the heat from the wound suggested that and more. A glance at his friend's face told him Tom was struggling valiantly to hide his discomfort. Penhall saw the pain mirrored in his eyes and wondered how much more he could withstand. Tugging his shirt from the waistband of his pants, he tore off the bottom. Folding it into a thick square, he slipped it beneath Tom's jacket and pressed it to the wound. Collecting Tom's hand, he placed his friend's palm against the make-shift pressure bandage. "Hold that in place," he instructed. "We're not going anywhere until we get the bleeding stopped."
Silently, Tom obeyed. His long bangs were scattered over his brow, the ends dripping with rain. Wet from the downpour, his lashes were clumped together, offsetting the shadow-rimmed pools of his eyes. One wayward strand of hair spiked over his brow, resting against his cheek. Doug reached out and swept the errant lock aside.
"You're gonna owe me big time when we get out of here, you know that don't you?" Penhall smiled, bringing a flicker of amusement to Hanson's pale lips. He let the other rest a few more moments then checked on the bleeding. "Okay, it's stopped. Think you can walk now?"
Tom nodded and Doug assisted him to his feet. He stood swaying, the knuckles of his left hand whitening, as he curled his fingers against Penhall's arm. After a moment, the dizziness receded and he gave a brief nod of his head. This time Penhall lifted Hanson's arm and draped it over his shoulders, then slipped his own arm around Tom's narrow waist. Together, they moved forward.
*** *** ***
Penhall lost track of the time. At his side, Hanson continued to walk, though he slipped in and out of coherency, moaning softly when the pain became too much to bear. Twice more, Penhall stopped and eased his friend to the ground. The flush of fever on Tom was greater now, his shivering giving way to a cold sweat.
The rain abated, then departed all together, leaving them among a muddy, leaf-sodden terrain. When Penhall's watch told him the hour neared noon and there was still no sign of the road, he began to grown alarmed.
"Gotta be soon," he mumbled, nearly stumbling, as he helped Tom along in his grip. His own strength was beginning to wane, shriveling beneath the punishing effort of supporting his friend. Though Tom was slim, the drag of his weight in Penhall's arms began to take it's toll, fueled by the grueling trek over rock beds and uneven ground. He was about to suggest a break when he spied a gravel ribbon winding through the trees just ahead. "That's it! Hanson, that's it!" Penhall's face lit up when he realized the narrow passage was a service road for the cabins. "We're almost there, buddy. I'll have you dry and warm in no time."
The sight of the road renewed his stamina. Though the gravel bed lay up a steep incline, Penhall managed the crest with little difficulty. Once he gained the road, he eased Tom down by a tree, then stood to survey his surroundings.
The road disappeared into thickets on either side, then sloped down a steep embankment on the opposite shoulder. Stepping to the edge of the road, Penhall could just detect a glimmer of water through the dense copse of trees. Hurrying back to Tom, he knelt by his friend.
"The lake's over there," he said with a toss of his head in the opposite direction. "Cabin has to be too. I just don't know if it's left or right."
"Flip a coin," Tom said weakly. He began to cough, then doubled over as pain assaulted him. Penhall caught his shoulders and held him through the seizure. There was fresh blood on his back, where the exit wound leaked onto his jacket.
Penhall's expression was grave. "Look--you stay here and rest. I'm gonna go scout around. When I locate the cabin I'll come back for you."
Tom nodded. Leaning back against the tree, he closed his eyes. "Leave a trail of breadcrumbs."
Too distraught to appreciate the jibe, Penhall touched his partner's face. He could feel heat blistering against his fingertips; see the flush of fever mottling Tom's sallow skin. He knew the wound was likely infected, a thought that terrified him more than the amount of blood Hanson had lost. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he promised. When Hanson didn't open his eyes, but merely grunted, Penhall withdrew.
He stood for a moment, debating what direction to take. Finally, judging the position he had last marked the sun, he headed right and to the east.
*** *** ***
Tom came awake with a groan as a sudden stab of pain jarred him back to reality. Fire blossomed from his shoulder, trickling down his arm then fanning across his back with searing intensity. Leaning forward, he sucked down gulps of cold air as he waited for the torment to abate. Slow in departing, it left him trembling and nauseous. He sat a moment, frightened to move as bile pressed against the back of his throat. He was uncertain he would withstand another bout of illness, and swallowed quickly and convulsively to silence the upheaval in his stomach.
"God, Doug, where are you?" Folding an arm across his middle, Tom bent double, panting for breath. He could feel stones pressing against his knees; the touch of rain-soaked earth, cold and damp, saturating his muddy jeans. He forced himself to concentrate on those distractions, turning his mind from the gut-twisting nausea pummeling his stomach. " . . . don't . . . get sick." He said the words aloud, as if in speaking, he could gain some measure of determination not found in silence. Sitting back on his ankles, he turned his face to the sky. His chest rose and fell with the sharp flutter of his breath as sweat trickled down the chiseled line of his jaw, seeping beneath his collar.
In a moment the nausea passed, and he found he could breathe easier. Shrugging free of Penhall's coat, Tom struggled to his feet. Immediately the darkness rushed in, ushered on a wave of light- headedness. Blindly striking out a hand to steady himself, Tom braced his good arm against the tree. There was a loud buzzing in his ears like the drone of honey-bees beneath a summer sun. Increasing in volume, the tone gradually deepened, settling into a low rumble.
Tom blinked sweat from his eyes and stared down the gravel road. The dark bulk of a car moved slowly among the trees.
"Hey . . ." The word was barely a whisper on his fever-cracked lips. He watched the vehicle inch nearer, disbelief warring with the need for rescue. Finally as realization struck home, he propelled himself into motion. "Hey, help!" Tom staggered forward into the road, waving his good arm above his head. The other was cradled protectively close to his body. He wondered briefly what had become of Penhall; how late in the day the hour had grown. "Stop . . ." he whispered hoarsely. As if bowing to the command, the vehicle halted a few yards away.
Tom staggered forward. He was on the verge of collapse, sheer will alone, keeping him on his feet. His mind ceased to function on a rational level. Surroundings grew distant--clouded by a fog that left him muddled and confused. He could hear the harsh rasp of his breath, but failed to realize he grew close to hyperventilating. Hot and cold assaulted him, as alternating bouts of fever and chill tortured his body. "Please . . . help," he whispered.
In distracted fascination, he watched the passenger door open. A ripple of alarm fanned along his nerves, warning he had reason to fear. Belatedly, he realized there was something familiar about the car. He tried to think--digging through the murky realm of his thoughts, but his mind was too consumed by pain to function properly. Tom's eyes narrowed on the hood of the black vehicle. Once again the feeling of familiarity struck him. Blinking, he tried to distinguish the silver-plated object erected in the middle of the painted surface. That was when he saw the man.
"Officer Hanson . . ." The man known as Lupine let the greeting trail away on the threads of a malignant smile. "I believe we have some unfinished business."
Tom's breath whistled through his teeth. The driver's side door opened and another man stepped from the vehicle. A man he'd seen only once, but now recognized despite the perpetual haze of his thoughts. Though he didn't wear his patrolman's uniform, Officer Frank Wilson looked much the same as he had on the night Tom collided with him outside the interrogation room.
"You really are proving more trouble than you're worth," Lupine commented as Tom took a step backwards. "And not looking well at all. This is going to be much too easy." Lupine glanced aside at Wilson, and the latter raised a .9mm from behind the door.
Tom dove to the side as the first spray of bullets struck the road where he'd been standing. His injured shoulder collided with the ground and he cried aloud, jarred by the impact. The steep incline of the embankment sent him tumbling down the hillside, his body scraped and bruised by every jutting piece of rock and grasping tree branch. A distracted part of his mind registered Lupine yelling; the crunch of dry leaves as Wilson hurried in pursuit.
The fall was endless. Lost in a shroud of pain, Hanson blacked out momentarily when his body slammed to a halt against the moss-covered trunk of a walnut tree. Within seconds the same pain prodded him back to consciousness. He could feel fresh blood on his shoulder and back, more seeping from a jagged cut on his temple. His arm throbbed with unquenchable fire, twisting his stomach inside out. Heat flamed from his body as fever consumed him.
Gritting his teeth, he crawled forward, pushing with his one good arm and knees, burrowing beneath the camouflaging shelter of a pine copse. There he collapsed, corkscrewing his knees to his chest, the misery so intense he fought back tears. He could hear Lupine and Wilson in the distance, the latter battering through the trees, in search of his quarry.
"Damn it, I lost him." Wilson's voice seethed with anger, spiraling down through the wooded copse. A moment later his footsteps retreated.
"He's got to be here somewhere." Lupine's voice was recognizable by its steel edge. "Keep looking. He couldn't have gone far."
Reaching inside his jacket, Tom withdrew his .38. The gun felt awkward and heavy in his left hand. The bandage from the previous night still covered his lacerated fingers. Snagging it with his teeth, Tom tugged it free, then flexed his stiff fingers around the handle of the gun. Dropping his head, he bowed his forehead to his wrist.
"Please Doug . . . I need you . . ." The words faded away, and with them, his consciousness.
*** *** ***
Dennis was starting to mind the chill in the air. He'd lost his sense of direction and taken a wrong turn awhile back. He was certain of it now. The hour was inching near four o'clock in the afternoon and he still hadn't located the private trail to the house. The more he walked, the more the terrain looked like territory he'd already covered. He was beginning to think Penhall was right--it was far too easy to lose your way in a wooded thicket.
A glance at the sky confirmed the late hour. Night fell early in mid November, ushered in with increasing darkness. Coupled with that impending blackness, came a crispness to the breeze, previously lacking. Dennis tugged his collar tighter about his throat, warding off the chill. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he picked his way across a bed of protruding rock. Halfway through the uneven terrain, his foot turned on a moss-slick stone, sending him face down on the the hard surface. Teeth clattering together at the impact, he felt rock bite into his palms. A jangling echo erupted in his ears.
Shaking off the momentary stun, he struggled to rise. Almost immediately, pain flared in his ankle, shooting the length of his leg and embedding in his hip. His knee buckled as a startled cry wrenched from his lips.
"Oh, hell . . ." Dragging his leg close to his body, Dennis rubbed cold-reddened hands over his ankle. A breeze rippled by, scattering dry leaves around him. The sound whispered away into stillness and he felt the first prickling stab of fear. He knew the ankle was twisted; didn't see how it could support him the distance. Grinding his teeth together, he forced himself to stand. Pain waffled outwards from the swelling skin like tremors from an epicenter. Hobbling forward, he stumbled almost immediately, his balance proving precarious.
On hands and knees, Dennis hung his head. The breath whistled between his clenched teeth as he struggled to silence the pain. The rock bed was too uneven--he knew he'd never cross it erect, yet for Penhall and Hanson he had to try. Drawing a jagged breath, he moved one knee forward, followed by his hand. Slowly, Dennis began to crawl.
"Hey, boy--don't I know you?"
The voice came from nowhere--the abruptness of it, like cannon shot in the stillness. Startled, Dennis wrenched his head up. A short distance away, on the opposite side of the rock bed, stood a middle aged man with a cap of dun-colored hair.
*** *** ***
Tom gasped. He awoke surrounded by darkness. Not the blackness that had cocooned him in unconsciousness, but the softer, velvety blackness of night. It came so sudden, so unexpected, that Hanson cried aloud.
"Ssh!" Penhall's hand clamped over his mouth. Disoriented, Tom struggled against the restriction. His weak condition and slighter form, left him easily overpowered by his larger friend.
"Hanson, be still." Doug leaned close to his ear, words barely above a whisper. In the blackness beneath the sheltering trees, he could barely distinguish Hanson's face. "Come on, Tom. It's me--it's Doug."
There was a lessening of resistance and then Hanson stilled. Slowly, Doug pulled his hand away.
"I . . ." Tom tried to focus. His mind was in a thousand places, memories scattered like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. "Lupine . . ." he gasped, struggling to rise. "I-I saw . . ."
"I know." Doug eased him back against the ground. Beneath his hand, he could feel the front of Tom's jacket, wet and slick with blood. "I heard the shots. That's how I found you. They're still around . . . searching. You've been out for hours."
Tom dragged a hand through his hair. " . . . thirsty."
"Yeah, me too." Doug wet his lips. He could distinguish Tom's features now--the familiar arc of his brows; the almost pouty bow of his mouth. There was a blotch of dried blood beneath his hairline, more slanted across his cheek and jaw. In the darkness, his fever-bright eyes glittered with the intensity of cut glass. "I found the cabin. It's not far--"
"Lupine's car . . ." Unable to string thoughts coherently, Tom sputtered the words. He drew in a breath, panting as the ever-present pain returned with violence. "Doug--"
"I know." Penhall touched his cheek. "We need a ride out of here, but Lupine brought more than just Wilson. I saw three others scattered through the woods. I'll get you someplace safe, then I'll come back and try to locate the car. They took off a while back. I'm not sure where."
"No." Tom shook his head. Reaching forward, he knotted his fingers in the muddy fabric of Doug's torn shirt. "Help y-you . . ."
"Not this time, Tommy." Bracing an arm behind his friend's back, Penhall helped him sit forward. "You gotta walk buddy. It's not that far."
Tom closed his eyes. His ears were ringing. Mutely, he nodded.
He didn't know how he made it to the cabin; would later remember little of the torturous trek through the night-shrouded woods. It grew colder and his shivering increased, despite the fever raging in his shoulder. Tom clung to Doug, whimpering slightly when the pain would have driven him to his knees. Later he would recall brief glimpses of the lake--the mirror-black surface sheened with the icy glimmer of reflected moonlight. That image seemed almost surreal--tangled with the pain in his mind, until the two became inseparable. He choked on bile, the foul fluid laced now with coppery flakes of blood.
Twice, Penhall was forced to stop as Tom's empty stomach constricted, battering him mercilessly. Convulsing abdominal muscles forced him through the motion of vomiting, though it was only coughing that racked his blistered throat. Unable to go any further, Hanson buried his face against Doug's shoulder and wept.
"It's all right, Tom, I got you." Penhall wrapped his arms around his friend and held him through the torrent. He could sense the shuddering tension strung through Hanson's lean frame; feel the quivering hitch of his shoulders as fought back sobs.
The barrage was brief, and after a time Hanson pulled himself together. Blood stained fingers tangled in the front of Doug's shirt. "How . . . much further?" Wearily, Tom pressed his tear-damp cheek to his friend's shoulder.
"Not far, Tommy, I promise."
Hanson swallowed. He could taste the saltiness of tears on his lips, the touch of liquid making him long for cold water to soothe his parched throat. Wiping a hand across his face, he mopped away tears. "Help me up, Doug."
Mutely, Penhall obeyed. Neither wanted to think about Lupine or the fact that Frank Wilson--a cop in their own precinct--had betrayed them. Help seemed far away. Both knew, in all likelihood, Dennis had failed in his attempt to reach aide. Once more they began their grueling trek, only to arrive at the cabin twenty minutes later. The sight of the small building was like the discovery of an oasis in the desert.
"I think we should leave the lights off," Penhall said as he helped Tom over the threshold. The cabin was small, a one-room accommodation with woodstove, sink and table to the left. To the right was a sofa, two chairs and a set of bunk beds. Doug eased Tom on the lower mattress, then immediately ripped the blankets from the overhead bunk.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, he draped the thick quilts over Tom's legs. Moonlight streamed through three small windows on the adjacent wall, bathing the bed in a halo of celestial brilliance. Tom's face appeared almost spectral in that icy glow, his cheeks defined by shadow and cold white light. The long fringe of his lashes were wet from the tears he'd shed, clumped together over the glittering pools of his dark eyes.
Looking at his friend, Penhall swallowed hard. "I gotta get you out of that jacket. Get the bleeding stopped." Doug tugged on the zipper of the leather coat, then eased his friend forward. Gently, he pushed the fabric from Tom's left shoulder, letting the weight of the garment carry it across his back. As carefully as he could, Penhall peeled the blood-soaked jacket from the wound. Tom moaned and swayed against him. "Hang in there, Hanson." The material slid down Tom's arm and Penhall tugged it free. In the dim glow of moonlight, Hanson's denim shirt was encrusted with blood. Though most was dry, trails of fresh glimmered wetly among the old.
"Okay, Tommy, lay back." Easing him down on the bed, Doug drew the blankets around him. "I'll get some water to clean the wound."
" . . . thirsty . . ."
"I'll get that too." Doug moved away, desperately wishing for light. Though they were protected from the wind indoors, it remained chill nonetheless. Though he longed to light a fire for Hanson's sake, Penhall feared the smoke and reflected glow would bring Lupine and his assassins. Rummaging beneath the sink, he located a basin and filled it with water. Further investigation produced towels for bandages, and a glass he filled with water.
Returning to the bed, he slipped his hand behind Tom's head and helped him sit forward to drink. Tom greedily swallowed the water, sucking the liquid down like a man deprived. Penhall jerked the glass from his lips. "Not so fast. You'll make yourself sick."
With a soft moan, Tom collapsed against the mattress. The sheets beneath him were already stained with blood, signaling the exit wound had started to bleed again. Penhall set the glass aside. With trembling fingers he unbuttoned his friend's shirt, tugging the torn material free of Tom's waistband. Beneath the denim garment, Hanson wore a white tee shirt. That too was fouled with blood. Returning to the sink, Doug routed through the drawers until he found a knife. Rather than trying to remove the tee, Doug slit the garment from waist to neck, pushing the blood-soaked material aside. Finally, when the wound was exposed, he bathed it in cool water. Hanson groaned, turning his face towards the wall.
"I know it hurts, Tom." He could see the beginning of infection now--the wound swollen and red, puckered at the edges as though drawn with string. A deeper hue spread outward, mottling Tom's chest with angry purple blotches. Heat soaked into the swollen skin, inflaming the infected area. As Doug washed the wound, he felt Tom shudder. From the corner of his eye, he saw the corded tightening of muscle over Tom's flat stomach. "I'm gonna get you out of this, Hanson. I promise."
Continuing his administrations, Doug washed the wound as best he could. Hampered by the lack of hot water and proper lighting, he could only guess that he was doing any good. His eyes drifted to Hanson's face and he noted that Tom's eyelids were shut. Gently he touched his cheek, bringing the dark eyes back to his face. "You gotta roll on your side now," Doug urged quietly. "I need to see your back."
Tom licked his lips. Tugging his gun from his holster, he slipped it beneath the pillow. With visible effort, he forced his body onto its side, choking back a cry as the movement brought a new influx of pain. Using the knife, Doug slit Hanson's sleeve then cut the shirt away from his back. The exit wound did not appear as inflamed as the penetration on Tom's chest, but it was obviously infected. Doug went to the sink for fresh water, then returned and bathed his friend's back. Making a compress, he wedged it beneath Tom's shoulder, then gently guided the other to a supine position.
Tom shivered, though sweat beaded his brow. His face was white, features strained with the effort of control. His fingers curled into the mattress, and he drew in a choked breath as a conflagration of pain splintered down his arm. Grinding his teeth together, he bit back a cry.
Helplessly, Penhall watched the play of emotion on his face.
" . . . hurts . . ." Tom managed.
Doug nodded. He saw only one way of obtaining help. "You'll be safe here. I'm gonna go find Lupine's car."
Hanson's eyes grew wide in the ivory shell of his face. "N-not without me."
Doug snorted, but quickly realized his partner was serious. Tom struggled to a sitting position, wincing with the effort. "Don't be an idiot," Doug snapped. Gently, he pushed Tom back against the mattress. "You're not going anywhere, my friend."
Tom's breath came faster. "I'm . . . not gonna let you go out there and face those guys alone."
"Hanson, you'll slow me down."
"Doug, no. I'm not gonna stay here."
Sick as Hanson was, Doug also knew his partner was stubborn. In all likelihood he'd follow Doug out into the woods, determined to be at his friend's side if it came to a shooting match. While Penhall appreciated that fierce loyalty, he also knew it was impractical given the circumstances. Reaching behind him, he tugged his handcuffs from his belt. "Sorry, Tommy."
There was a flicker of surprised disbelief in Tom's eyes. He tried to recoil, but Penhall caught him easily, careful not to jar his arm as he drew his hands together and cuffed them around the bedpost.
"Don't do this to me." Weakened from fever and infection, Hanson was no match for his stronger partner.
"Tom, I'm sorry." Penhall stood to leave.
Tom's chest rose and fell with the agitated flutter of his breath. He tugged on the handcuffs. "Take these off, Penhall."
Doug removed his gun and checked the magazine. He felt oddly sadistic, as if in restraining Tom, he had struck a blow more painful than the bullet hole. Glancing aside, he avoided his friend's eyes. "If I take them off, will you promise to stay?"
Bowing his head, Tom sucked in a trembling breath. "No."
Penhall tucked the gun into its holster. "Sorry, can't help you." His face was composed, marked clearly by resolve. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
Tom waited until he heard the retreating echo of Doug's footsteps followed by the click of the front door. Slumping against the pillow, he let his bound hands slide the length of the post, until they came to rest on the edge of the mattress. A second feeble tug brought him no closer to freedom. He knew from experience, the cuffs were secure. Sweat trickled into his eyes and he rolled his head on the pillow, the movement forcing the long bangs from his brow. Overhead, the boxsprings of the upper bunk yawned like a patch of midnight sky.
Minute slipped into minute, and the room began to spin. "Please, not again," Tom mumbled. A sudden rush of vertigo tumbled him into unconsciousness. When he awoke much later, the shadows had thickened, blanketing the cabin in a web of velvety umbrage.
Tom sucked in a breath. Needles pinged the length of his arms, his circulation restricted by the handcuffs. He tried to move and succeeded only in awakening the pain in his shoulder.
It was then he heard the first crack of gunfire.
*** *** ***
Penhall eased through the trees, carefully making his way back to the road. The night air had chilled considerably, whispering over the back of his neck and stringing goosebumps down his arm. He'd never recovered the coat Tom had lost, and his shirt was still damp from the afternoon rain. Blowing on his hands to warm his chilled fingers, he squatted at the edge of the treeline and let his gaze sweep the moon dusted road. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness long ago, enabling him to depict shapes among the trees on the opposite side.
Wilson had returned, scouring the area like a bloodhound. Doug knew the car and Lupine could not be far away. The odds of him overpowering Lupine plus his henchmen were slim, but Doug thought he might be able to neutralize them one at a time. For Tom's sake he had to get to the car, and secure a way back to civilization.
He knew his friend was pushing the levels of endurance. Though slight of stature, Tom's resilience often outshone Penhall's own remarkable stamina. Doug had been in enough perilous situations with his friend and partner to know Hanson didn't crumble easily. The loss of blood, coupled with fever and infection, had obviously taken its toll on Tom, evidenced by his uncharacteristic breakdown in the woods. That display had shaken Doug enough to make him use the cuffs in restraining his friend, despite the self-loathing he felt for doing so. For a person who usually maintained tight control over his emotions, Tom's uncharacteristic tears had signaled he was at the end of his strength. Even so, Doug knew his partner would have followed him into the woods, intent on protecting his friend, when he couldn't protect himself.
Shifting slightly to ease his cramped muscles, Penhall tried to calculate his best route for taking Wilson unaware. He knew little about the older patrolman, just that he had recently transferred from an outlaying district. That explained why Hanson's cover with Lupine wasn't blown until just yesterday. Wilson had been affiliated with Jump Street for little more than a week, though he'd obviously been in Lupine's pocket from the beginning. Apparently it had taken him that long to decipher the case and report back to his employer. He also would have been able to check on Tom's schedule for the weekend, relaying the information to the arms dealer, thus enabling Lupine to even the score for the clamp on his business.
With a glance at the star-studded sky, Penhall guessed the hour inched near eight. He'd given up hope that Dennis was going to provide rescue. Either Booker had been unsuccessful in locating the house, or emergency crews had been unable to find them. Since he'd seen no indication of the latter, he guessed the first assumption was closer to the truth.
Something rustled in the underbrush a short distance away and Penhall gave an involuntary start. He saw a flicker of eyes and a ringed tail, before the raccoon disappeared between the trees. Exhaling slightly, Penhall pressed the back of his gun to his brow. His nerves were edgy, strung taut by the exhausting hours spent with Tom. "Get it together," he muttered.
There followed a crunch of gravel and he lifted his head to see the black Mercedes inching down the stone-covered road. Moonlight illuminated the hood ornament, clearly defining the silver- plated shape of a wolf.
Doug eased forward slipping to the edge of the trees. There was a loud crack beside him--the snap of twig beneath a boot heel. Penhall spun, wrenching his gun to firing position. His finger convulsed on the trigger, at the same moment a barrage of gunfire exploded around him.
Diving to the side, Doug rolled for the sheltering cover of the trees. Concealed by the intertwining trunks of three elms, he waited, listening to the harsh rasp of his own breath. The woods had grown still once again, the ear-shattering silence, strangely ominous after the quick exchange of bullets.
"Give it up, Penhall," a disembodied voice called from the darkness. "Lupine found the cabin." A soft chuckle, goatish and velvet as the night. "By now your buddy Hanson's already dead."
Doug felt the gut-twisting blow of the words. He had left Tom cuffed to the bedpost . . . as helpless as if he'd handed him to Lupine himself.
*** *** ***
The sharp report of automatic weaponfire echoed through the woods. Unnatural among the whispering music of wind and woodland creatures, the noise jarred Tom to painful awareness.
"Doug--" His friend's name tumbled from his lips, spurred by concern. Shifting on the bed, Hanson groaned aloud when the movement sent pain waffling down his arm. "Not now, damn it!" Struggling to a sitting position, he propped his good shoulder against the bedpost, using the column to support him. Wave after wave of dizziness crashed over him, threatening to drown him in darkness. Blinking back vertigo, he sucked in lungfuls of cold air, steading himself until the faintness passed. He tugged once on the cuffs, then swore angrily. Leave it to Doug to bring handcuffs on a fishing trip.
Grasping the column, Tom pulled himself upright. He stood a moment, swallowing down nausea, his cheek pressed to the wooden post. His shirt hung in bloody tatters--half on, half off his lean frame. The blankets fell in a ball at his feet and he kicked them aside. Sliding his arms around the post, he reached beneath the pillow, feeling for the .38. His fingertips brushed metal, but the weapon was just beyond his reach. Inhibited by the cuffs, he strained against the confinement, feeling the spasmodic pull of muscle across his shoulder and back. The resultant fire was so unexpected it drove him to his knees.
Tom cried aloud, falling against the post as his legs buckled. He slumped to the floor, arms still wrapped around the wooden column. Gasping, he tried to fight off the white-hot influx of pain, the sheer intensity of it, brutalizing him from the inside out. "Ohgod . . ." Tom dropped his head. "Please . . . I can't . . ." Though no one was there to hear the words, his despair was vocal. "Doug . . . gotta help Doug . . ."
Blinded by pain, Hanson still thought of his friend. He tried to get his feet under him--tried to pull himself upright, but his legs wouldn't cooperate. Exhausted, he wilted against the bedframe. Trapped on the floor, his arms looped around the post, he bowed his head to the mattress.
Without warning the front door banged inward--the resulting boom crackling through the interior of the small cabin, much as gunshots had earlier echoed through the woods. Lifting his head, Tom stared at the apparition in the doorway.
"Officer Hanson--" Lupine reached aside and switched on the overhead light. A wash of yellow illumination flooded the room. Tom turned his head, wincing at the sting of unexpected brilliance. He heard a soft chuckle, followed by the click of the door. Footsteps echoed across the pine floorboards as Lupine approached him. "Shit, Hanson, you look near dead. Ain't gonna be no fun in this, boy."
Tom lifted his head, staring up at Lupine. The other towered over him--a broad-shoulder man with a v-shaped waist. Caramel-colored hair offset a liverish complexion and seawater eyes. Dressed immaculately in a tailored-jacket, overlaid by an ankle-length coat, Lupine was the image of sophistication and wealth. His lips curled disdainfully as he glanced down at Hanson. "You really are a mess, boy." With cool arrogance, Lupine raised his arm, leveling a Glock .9mm at Tom's head.
"Where's Doug?" Hanson demanded, ignoring the threat.
There was a flicker of admiration in Lupine's aqua-green eyes. "I left him in a cross-fire with Wilson and some others. My guess is he's dead."
"Bastard!" Tom lurched against the restraints, choking back a cry when the action buffeted him with pain. He blanched, fingers white-knuckling on the post, as he played the now familiar game of waiting for the agony to pass.
Squatting in front of him, Lupine held the Glock loosely between his legs. "That looked painful, Hanson. You like torturing yourself like that?"
"Go to hell."
"Maybe I've been there. Don't bait me, cop."
Hanson was silent.
Lupine tilted his head, taking the acquiescence as submission. With a slight groan, Tom shifted his hand beneath the pillow, secretly reaching for the .38. Lupine saw the movement as the painful writhing of a wounded man. "Wilson tells me you're up here for a fishing trip. Some trip. Who put that bullet in you, Tommy?" The name was said with all the snide inflection of a man who enjoyed punishing others.
Hanson remained silent, his expression defiant. A flash of rage mottled Lupine's blunt features. Drawing back his arm, he cuffed Tom across the face. "Answer me!" he demanded.
Tom's head rocked to the side, but his gaze remained contemptuous. "What for? Afraid of a little competition?"
Lupine smiled thinly. "You really do have a death wish, boy." Reaching forward, he grabbed Tom by the hair and jammed the barrel of the Glock beneath his chin. "Now, I'll ask you again--who put that bullet in you?"
Tom grit his teeth, fighting back pain. "I don't know. Some guy . . . on the road . . . took our car. . ."
"That's better." Lupine released him, smiling indulgently at his own prowess. The barrel of the Glock tracked over Tom's cheek, then fell away.
Hanson shifted. He could play submissive if it meant buying time to reach the pistol. In order to retrieve the gun, he knew he wouldn't be able to move gradually. His only hope rested in a violent move that would likely cast him into unconsciousness. Lupine still hovered too near, his proximity making it impossible for Tom to reach the weapon before the other discharged a shot. Tom knew if he hoped to defeat Lupine, he had to do it soon, before his cohorts showed up.
The faint rumble of a car engine seemed to signal that return. Hanson felt his stomach twist as the sinking realization struck home. Lupine's lips stretched in a savoring smile. "That's probably Wilson," the older man intoned. But it was the sudden slash of emergency lights, cutting through the window that drew Lupine's attention. Stepping away from Tom, he strode for the night-blackened glass. In that instant the younger man threw himself against the bedpost, straining for the gun.
Tom's fingers closed over the handle, even as he heard the rising wail of a siren, followed quickly by another. The thrust of his momentum carried him forward. Off-balance, he stumbled, then screamed, when the snap of the wrist cuffs wrenched him brutally back in place. A blistering explosion of pain knifed through him. Desperate, he grappled for the gun.
"Son-of-a--" Lupine whirled on his prisoner, eyes blazing with murderous rage. Tom was half sprawled on the bed, his injured shoulder to the mattress. Dazed, he saw Lupine extend his arm and raise the Glock. Tom wrenched both hands from beneath the pillow and fired the .38, pumping two rounds into Lupine's chest. The other reeled backwards, arms thrown wide, body jerking like a marionette on a string. The scene unfolded like a play in Tom's eyes--sight and sound growing alarmingly muddy.
It was all he remembered before darkness descended, nudging him into the blissful cocoon of unconsciousness.
*** *** ***
Tom blinked, struggling to orient on the white haze of unfamiliar surroundings. Turning his head, he groaned softly as a sharp stitch of pain pulled him back to consciousness. He was lying in a hospital bed, an IV dripping clear liquid into his arm. His right shoulder was immobilized, the arm taped to his chest and secured with gauze. Afternoon sunlight slanted through a row of windows to his left, infusing the room with mustard gold light.
"Hey . . ." The voice was soft, spoken by his shoulder. Tom turned his head on the pillow, greeted by the sight of Doug Penhall. His friend looked tired. Shadows lingered beneath his dark eyes and creased the hollows of his cheeks. His long hair was disheveled, hanging ragged over his collar, the mussed ends clearly in need of a trim. As Tom watched, Doug's lips curled in a grin. "How're you feeling, partner?"
Tom wet his lips. He wasn't sure he could talk. He throat felt dry, blistered with sand. "Sore," he managed.
Claiming a pitcher of water from the bedside table, Penhall poured a cup and passed it to Tom. "The doc says you're gonna be laid up for a while. You've got some lacerated tissue, and they had to pull bone fragments from the wound. That's what was causing so much pain."
"Yeah." Tom lowered his head. Wrapped around the styrofoam cup, his fingers trembled as though afflicted. Unwanted memories returned, reminding him of the torture he'd endured. "Lupine--what happened?"
"You don't remember?"
Tom swallowed a mouthful of water and returned the cup to Doug. "I shot him."
Penhall's gaze was direct. "You killed him, Tom."
Folding back into the pillows, Hanson closed his eyes. He felt light-headed, his thoughts muddled with distractions--pieces of memory he couldn't string together.
"Booker twisted his ankle," Penhall relayed quietly, "But the guy he was looking for, found him in the woods. They placed a call for help and the State police responded. Wilson and the others had me pinned in a crossfire, about the same time Lupine found you in the cabin."
"You cuffed me to the bed, Doug."
"I know." Penhall lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry. That almost got you killed."
Hanson shook his head. "Kind of a moot point. I never would have made it to the cabin if it hadn't been for you." Tom drew a breath. Lifting his arm, he gingerly inspected his injured shoulder. "I feel kind of funny . . ."
"You're on pain killers, my friend. This is the first you've been coherent in two days."
Tom raked a hand through his hair, sweeping the long bangs from his forehead. He didn't like the idea of being oblivious for any period of time, much less forty-eight hours. "Any word on the guy that shot me?"
"Whitegate PD picked up all three yesterday. Idiots were still driving around in our car. Hey, Tom--" Penhall touched his arm, "--just so you know, everyone's been here--Fuller, Ioki, Judy, even Blowfish. Your mom and Jackie are at the lounge, getting a cup of coffee. And Booker--" Penhall snorted. "The guy practically camped out here, until I made him get some sleep this morning."
"Booker?" Hanson's brows rose into the tousled fringe of his hair. Dennis Booker was the last person he expected to be concerned over his welfare.
Penhall shrugged. "I think he's feeling a little guilty. It was his idea about the fishing trip."
"Uh-huh." Tom studied his friend, noting once again the shadows beneath his eyes; the haggard look of his face. "How long have you been here?"
Doug's eyes dipped to the floor. "Awhile," he admitted.
"Like two days?"
Penhall snorted. "Give it a rest, Hanson. You're not the only person in my life."
Tom's smile was slight--a barely perceptible twitch of his lips. The amusement fled, replaced by a somberness that deepened the muddy hue of his coffee-black eyes. He knew from Penhall's response that his friend had barely left his side. He owed Doug his life. More than that, he owed him an explanation. "I'm sorry I fell apart on you."
Momentarily speechless, Doug's gaze grew incredulous with disbelief. "Hanson, you went through hell."
"Yeah, but I didn't mean to drag you with me."
Doug exhaled. "You're my partner. My best friend. What'd you expect me to do?"
Tom was silent. From the hallway he could hear the scritch of rubber-soled shoes as a nurse's aide walked past the door; the warble of the hospital intercom paging a Doctor Claridge. The pain had subsided again, tamed beneath the blissful haze of medication. Sleep tugged at his senses, drawing a veil of lashes over his eyes. Hanson blinked and sat straighter.
"Thanks," he whispered, and this time he grinned. "But . . . um . . . I've had better fishing guides."
Doug took a swipe at his head. "Get some sleep."
Still grinning, Hanson eased beneath the covers. The comforting softness of the bed was a salve for his battered body--warm and inviting, after an arduous journey he'd sooner forget. Eventually he would have to face the long hours that came with recovery, but for now all he wanted was the blissful oblivion of slumber.
Tom's eyes fluttered shut as he heard Doug move into the hallway. His friend's retreating footsteps mingled with the muted noise of the hospital. Like a clock ticking in the background, the mesh of sound gradually lulled him to sleep.
Hours later, a single form stepped into the room. Hesitating first in the doorway, the visitor moved to the bed where he stood looking down on the sleeping man. His own normally cocksure expression was replaced by one of concern. Easing into the bedside chair, he prepared to maintain a vigil throughout the night.
Dennis Booker was still there, when Tom awoke in the morning.